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Women Warriors: Breaking Barriers and Bridging Equality Gaps

Shashibala runs a beauty salon in Tamkuhi Raj, a small town in North India’s Uttar Pradesh. She loves her work but continuous power outages and erratic access to electricity blocked her road to financial independence. “There were times when the customer was on the chair but there was no electricity. I would use a mobile phone’s flashlight to work,” she shared when I visited India in April 2022.

She reached out to Smart Power India, a subsidiary of The Rockefeller Foundation whose mission is to accelerate electricity access in rural underserved communities, in part by providing loans through local microfinance institutions to mini-grid customers. A loan enabled Shashibala to switch to solar power—good both for the environment and her business.

Shashibala is just one example of the resilient, driven, and fiercely independent women entrepreneurs of India who face multiple roadblocks, not least among them inequitable distribution of energy. Of the 1.3 billion people globally estimated to have no access to electricity, 70 percent are women, according to the ORF 2021 report.

I spent two weeks in India in April to understand how we could better support the brilliant work that our partners are doing there. My inspiring interactions with women like Shashibala gave me immense hope and renewed my motivation to continue supporting women at the helm of fledgling enterprises.

Consider women like community leader Pooja Devi, living on the outskirts of Delhi, who tackled the ongoing pandemic and other socio-economic challenges in her neighborhood by working with Swasti Health Catalyst to create a health ecosystem in partnership with the government and hyper-local civil society organizations.

Now, a wellness center is operating in her district. It is run by Sharmila and Dinesh, two full-time nurses, and supported by the tele-care facility and local community wellness facilitators.

To date, there are 278 functional Self Health Groups (Swasth Groups) with a total membership of 1,850 women members and their families.

These women are not only ensuring that their communities continue to thrive, but also breaking barriers while supporting the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal #5 to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. From the hinterlands of India, they challenge the status quo by working to empower all women and girls. Although the road to equality is still long, they have reinforced my belief in the mighty will that women possess to build their own future.

Interacting with these women, I could not stop myself from reminiscing about my childhood in India. Like many of them, I had humble beginnings too, but my parents always prioritized my education. Being cognizant of my privilege, I believe that every woman deserves a chance to uplift herself.

Image is of women gathering at Swasti Health Catalyst community wellness center.
Women gather at Swasti Health Catalyst’s community wellness center. (Photo Courtesy of Integral Media)

I have spent three decades in the development sector working to bring about change in the lives of people, especially women. We have accomplished much in this time, but so much more needs to be done. Three key learnings that keep me going:

  • The grit and determination of resilient and enterprising women are the foundation for a gender-equal tomorrow. As a philanthropy, we at The Rockefeller Foundation aim to build with equity while keeping gender at the heart of all that we do.
  • A community of women leaders can move mountains. The recent Bellagio Convening of Global South leaders and Asian Impact Leaders Network introduced me to a community of women leaders who are kind, driven, empathetic and keen to create impact.
  • Finally, amplifying the voices of all women will rebalance existing power relationships in systems across the world. Encouraging their growth and securing their future will help create the world we want to see.

Women must play a critical role if we are to accomplish the 17 SDG targets set by the United Nations. It’s time to empower women across the globe so they can help lead the way in ending food poverty, creating accessible and reliable energy, ensuring improved health and well-being of every individual, and envisioning a tomorrow where climate change is combatted.

We need women as empowered and equal partners at the heart of it all.